Cuomo's Going to Legalize Marijuana, He Just Doesn't Know It Yet

Updated on April 25, 2018

April 20th marks the official unofficial holiday of cannabis use and consumption, and hundreds of legal marijuana aficionados are descending on places like San Francisco's Hippie Hill and Denver's Civic Center Park to celebrate. Thousands of Americans will likely toke up privately in states where the drug is still illegal. This includes the center of the universe, New York City.

Despite a medical dispensary opening up on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue earlier today, and the city being the largest consumer of cannabis in the U.S. (by a lot), the green is still prohibited for recreational use in the Empire State. Still, there's reason to believe that this will change in the near future.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

The Blue-Green Overlap

It's hard to ignore the correlation between presidential voting tendencies and legalized marijuana. Seven states (California, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and D.C.) have voted Democrat in at least the past four elections, and two states (Nevada and Colorado) haven't voted Republican since 2004, with the latter not expected to turn red again anytime in the future. These states have all given the okay to light up in the privacy of your own home.

In the places that are expected to legalize, eight (Minnesota, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire) are considered safe blue, while the remainder (Florida and Michigan) being battleground states. Only Arizona, which hasn't voted Democrat since 1996, is a GOP stronghold.

Democratic leaning states in blue; Republican leaning in red. Flip states are in purple.
Democratic leaning states in blue; Republican leaning in red. Flip states are in purple.
Legal cannabis; Green states have legalized for recreational use, white states are expected to legalize within five years. New York is in orange.
Legal cannabis; Green states have legalized for recreational use, white states are expected to legalize within five years. New York is in orange.

This isn't a coincidence. Since around 2009, 50% of registered Democrats have supported the legalization of marijuana, vs 26% for Republicans at the same time. Surprisingly, independent voters have had stronger support for the issue than registered voters, with just below half in support in 2004. The matter was also made part of the official Democratic platform in 2016, the first time a major party adopted such stance.

Today, 51% of Republicans (with 72% of Democrats and 67% of independents) support moving cannabis out of the shadows, a big shift from the stigma it carried for much of the late 20th century. But this change in public opinion isn't felt equally across the country. Local politics still play a major role.

The Great Progressive

It's hard to believe that New York hasn't legalized the substance yet, given how often the Governor likes to boast his progressive leadership. The state is the fourth largest state by population, and the third largest economy. Cuomo has on previously occasions described marijuana as a "gateway drug" and called it a non-starter. Despite the gateway theory being debugged a numerous occasions, the Governor has stuck by that opinion of numerous occasions.

Cuomo has prided himself on his work in creating marriage equality and his push for $15 minimum wage, things that he believes make's him a hero of the Democratic party. Now, as he prepares for reelection to a third term, he's being pressured to act on the matter of cannabis. With pressure from a Bernie Sanders styled, Trump inspired actress coming from the left, Cuomo must make a firm decision on his stance. Not only for his 2018 governor bid, but for his expected 2020 presidential bid.

Cynthia Nixon, an openly gay actress from Sex & the City, announced in March that she would challenge an entrenched Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for New York Governor. In a matter of weeks, she's emerged as a far-left-of-center candidate bent on turning New York into her ultra-liberal vision of the future. Luckily, she stands little chance of winning. Odd's are her campaign will end the same way her far more qualified counterpart Zephyr Teachout's campaign ended in 2014: optimistic defeat.

Cuomo sits ahead of Nixon by a comfortable 31 point lead. He has the backing of the typical Democratic establishment, and is above and beyond in fundraising. The odd's that he's beaten are slim to none. But the primary challenge from Nixon is nothing to ignore. Despite her chance's, Nixon has pushed Cuomo on a number of issues, including marijuana.

Republicans Before Progressives

On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer introduced legislation to decriminalize cannabis on the federal level. His bill would remove the drug from the Schedule I of the Controlled Substance Act and even punish states that have prohibitive marijuana laws. Schumer, a Brooklyn native, has began pushing his entire party in a green direction with the sponsorship

Elsewhere, in neighboring New Jersey, newly elected Governor Phil Murphy has pledged to legalize, and has made major strides in getting there. Murphy is moving in the direction of other blue-state leaders, including Jerry Brown in California, Kate Brown in Oregon, and Jay Inslee in Washington.

Meanwhile, GOP Governors surrounding New York have overseen legalization. In Maine, incumbent Paul LePage remains opposed to the drug, but stated he'd support a referendum if it passed, which it did in early 2017. Other Northeast leaders, including Phil Scott of Vermont, and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts (the most popular state head in the country) have allowed cannabis to proceed, despite their personal hesitations. In Nevada, moderate Republican Brian Sandoval has encouraged the state to follow Colorado's lead.

2020 and Beyond

The rapidly changing landscape puts Cuomo in a precarious position. If he chooses to run in 2020, which he is expected to, he will have to choose between the moderate wing of his party, which remains hesitant on marijuana, and the liberals, who support it unequivocally. Recent events point left.

During the State of the State address in January, Cuomo announced his support for a study of the effects of legal marijuana. Initially, funding was precluded from the 2018-2019 budget, but the Governor is deploying executive funds to proceed anyway.

Cuomo is also facing a near-two billion dollar budget gap, which is only expected to grow in the coming years. Marijuana sales are expected to hit $3.7 billion in California in the first year alone, and will probably take off from there. For the state of New York, that number could exceed $4 billion, meaning hundreds of millions in tax could be collected from legal sales.

Going forward, the smart money has Cuomo legalizing the green, whether he likes it or not. As Democrats, and Republicans, are pushed further to the extreme ends of the political spectrum, more will have to make personally uncomfortably policy decisions, including the legalization of recreational marijuana.

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